The first snow of the year has fallen and an energy collapse befell. More than 100 thousand people didn’t have access to electricity for several days, the thermal power plant (TPP) Nikola Tesla was out of operation, and the Public electricity company of Serbia (EPS) was forced to import electricity at very unfavorable costs. During the government session on the 14th of December, President Aleksandar Vučič apologized for something that was never in his scope of competence: “I made the mistake of not turning to Kostolac earlier, of not moving forward with Kolubara B, because I listened to all the ecologists, fake experts, and foreigners who came to patronize me and give me a piece of their mind. I would hang myself from the biggest chandelier here because I listened to them”, he concluded.
A year ago, on the 9th of December 2020, according to information from the letter that the Minister of Mining and Energy (MME) Zorana Mihajlović sent to the acting director of EPS Milorad Grčić, we found out that Vučić, Grčić, and Mihajlović met at the Palace of Serbia and decided behind closed doors to “not continue with the construction of TPP Kolubara B ”. Putting aside that these types of decisions are not to be made by direct agreement of persons without the necessary jurisdiction, the project Kolubara B has never been officially abandoned.
The Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure (MCTI) didn’t suspend the procedure of drafting the Spatial Plan for areas of special purpose (PPPPN) for Kolubara B, nor was this thermal power plant removed from the Spatial Plan of the Republic of Serbia, the highest planning document in the country. As long as it is planned to include this project in the planning system, the government leaves open the option to return to this project in the future. The only suspension of the construction of this TPP could be the suspension of the process of drafting the PPPPN Kolubara B and its removal from the Spatial Plan.
However, MCTI envisages the construction of new coal-fired power plants of 3,000 MW capacity in the new Spatial Plan, while MME explicitly does not support the construction of new coal-fired thermal power plants and claims that funding for this project has been dropped from the ministry’s budget. The MME delivered comments on the Spatial Plan and requested that the TTP Kolubara B be removed from it, considering that the plan is based on documents dating back to the past decade and does not respect the signed international documents, as it foresees the increase of coal-production, which is against the energy transition principles that the MME is responsible for enforcing. This type of behavior and the inconsistency of decision-makers’ stances is completely unacceptable and shows their inability to conduct responsible work that requires intersectoral cooperation.
This incompetency is also reflected in the allegation from the Government session that wind energy has done more harm than good. Allegedly, the Republic of Serbia had to purchase electricity at high prices in order to replace the one lacking from wind-energy production, which contributed to the energy collapse. Renewable energy sources are not 100% reliable, which is a fact of which everyone is aware. Electricity from wind cannot be produced if there is no wind, nor do solar panels produce electricity when the sun is not shining. Nevertheless, the diversification of energy sources is crucial for ensuring energy stability, as is augmenting the share of renewable energy sources in the energy production mix. If there hadn’t been about 360 MW of installed capacity of wind power plants on the network, the problem with electricity supply would be significantly bigger.
The Government’s main argument in favor of coal is energy security – certain energy for all. Nonetheless, the situation we found ourselves in, where over 100 thousand people didn’t have access to electricity, shows that coal does not represent a guarantee of energy security and stability. Thermal power plants with an average age of over 40 years, which use increasingly poor quality lignite, which are also the biggest air pollutants in Europe, cannot be the basis of energy security. They used to be, but today they are not. Unfortunately, thermal power plants that work as part of EPS have been violating the regulations of the Republic of Serbia for four years and do not respect the National Plan for Reducing Emissions of Pollutants from Large Combustion Plants (NERP). Doing so, Serbia is violating previously signed international agreements and demonstrating its incapacity to implement the energy transition. Justifications for violations of the law and non-compliance with environmental regulations cannot exist in a state that is supposed be based on the rule of law.
Furthermore, regardless of how the president puts it, the chances of TPP Kolubara being operational by now and being able to help in supplying electricity during this crisis are small, even if the project had continued in 2021. Namely, EPS hasn’t been capable of starting its only flue-gas desulphurization unit in the Kostolac B plant for four years. After the expiration of the trial operation period for this unit starting in October 2020. In order to determine whether it was even suitable for use, EPS (unsuccessfully) applied for the issuance of an operation permit.
“Public electricity company of Serbia boasts that it has installed a flue gas desulphurization plant at the Kostolac B thermal power plant, but keeps silent that the plant does not have an operation permit and that the Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure refused to issue a use permit at the end of November”, states the program director of RERI, Mirko Popović.
This poses a question: how would EPS build a new TPP in a year when in 4 years they failed to obtain a operation permit for a facility that serves to reduce air pollution?
Finally, the process of drafting the PPPPN for Kolubara B was carried out with numerous illegalities, primarily related to preventing the public from requesting justification for the construction of this TPP. About 60 people wanted to attend the public session, which was supposed to be held in Lazarevac, and due to the larger number of attendees than epidemiological measures allowed at the time, the Ministry had to suspend the session. Subsequently, MCTI very ingeniously informed the public that it would continue the public session on the same day the session was scheduled at 8am. Not one representative of the public was present at the session at which the development of a spatial plan for the construction of this TPP was decided.
Based on all the above, we conclude that the presentation of President Aleksandar Vučić is not based on objective facts and a rational view of the challenges the energy transition poses. The development of the Integrated National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP) is an opportunity for Serbia to develop a sustainable and ambitious energy transition plan and ensure energy security based on diversification of energy sources and energy efficiency. We will get such a plan if the Ministry of Mining and Energy enables the public to participate in the process of drafting NECP, which it has not done so far. The president could also help – by stopping his interference in the competencies of other authorities.